On Thursday, June 10th, as part of A Better City’s Boston Forward Together speaker series, A Better City convened a webinar with Dr. Ted Landsmark, Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. Rick Dimino, A Better City President and CEO, facilitated the conversation with one of our region’s thought leaders to explore several timely questions: What role can design and urban planning play in supporting an equitable economic recovery? What are Boston's unique challenges and opportunities at this critical point in time? What can we all do to reaffirm the value of Boston and build back better?
See complete Opportunities for Action and Summary below.
Dr. Landsmark began his conversation providing background on the research done by the Dukakis Center and his own role on the Board of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which over the past six years has approved $45 billion in new development in Boston. In his academic work, the focus is on policy, while in his civic role he is involved in implementation.
He spoke of the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. He compared it to the recent focus on the massacre in Tulsa that occurred 100 years ago, and about the use of information to move forward. Man-made or natural calamities sometimes catalyze positive public policy changes. A question is what does it mean that things will be different after COVID?
The conversation turned to the built environment and the realization that more new affordable housing has been built in Boston in recent years than any other city. Dr. Landsmark said that 30,000 new housing units have been built under the direction of Mayor Walsh, with 20% of that affordable housing, which seems like an impressive number until we learn that over that period the population of the city has grown by 60,000 residents. Growth is expanding faster than we can keep up with it. Dr. Landsmark said that housing is a regional issue and other communities besides Boston need to address the issue by building more housing. We have not figured out, he said, how to have a unified goal for planning and implementation. Shared solutions have historically been a challenge in New England, which is roughly the size of Washington State or Georgia where state-wide solutions are possible.
Rick Dimino added that county governments elsewhere provide some regional perspectives, but we do not have strong counties here. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council does good work but generally does not have the ability to implement these good planning ideas.
Dr. Landsmark expressed hope that the environment will bring us together as we recognize the need for action. He told the story of “The Vault,” which in an earlier era was an assembly of local business leaders who used their resources to address local problems. The collegial relationship and civic orientation of business leaders who grew up in Boston has largely been lost with the trend toward global ownership of local companies perhaps leading to an inclination of the global companies to meet their diversity goals through global supply chains rather than through local diversity outreach and procurement. Dr. Landsmark said that members of The Vault were able to make wise decisions on behalf of the community.
Rick said that civic leadership still exists on the board of A Better City and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, with business leaders who really care and work toward real outcomes. The organizations are working to embrace new voices of diversity.
Universities and hospitals are anchored here and their leaders will not be going away, Dr. Landsmark said. The institutions can be bridges that engage in research and employ graduates to conduct that work. It is also important to engage future leaders and nurture them in large firms with internships and increasing responsibilities so that they can learn to become civic leaders. The future leaders can be brought together across sectors to learn from each other. The city is growing and changing, Dr. Landsmark continued, with the greatest growth in the Latinx and Asian communities. There are examples of groups like the Urban Land Institute and the Green Ribbon Commission that bring planning resources and implementation resources to address issues like energy use.
Dr. Landsmark said that despite the critiques of development in the Seaport District, the properties there have added millions of dollars to the city coffers to provide resources for schools, COVID relief, and food to those who need it.
In closing, Dr. Landsmark said that we need to bring people together to network and make connections possible. The question is who convenes this network: government, a business organization, a corporate entity, foundations?
Turner Skenderian relayed questions beginning with the role of the MBTA in supporting post-pandemic recovery. Dr. Landsmark said that the MBTA is the network that holds the region together and is important for access and equity. He said that he has advocated for free MBTA service that makes equity and economic development possible. Components of the educational system like community colleges can be connected by the MBTA. Planning for the MBTA should be linked to regional planning. He emphasized the value of cross connections.
Dr. Landsmark was asked about Boston as a majority minority city, and he discussed the role of the private sector in eliminating disparities. But, in many sectors including real estate, universities, law firms, and finance there are few people of color at upper management levels.
Geri Denterlein observed that in the 1980s, legislators like Pat McGovern were champions of regionalism, but she said that there are few examples of that kind of leadership today. Dr. Landsmark mentioned former Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo who has recently joined Northeastern University who supports regional efforts. Dr. Landsmark said that east/west divisions across the state need to be addressed before a disaster forces us to work together.
Rick Dimino thanked Dr. Landsmark for his inspiring and insightful discussion, and his points about connecting people to jobs. Dr. Landsmark offered a closing observation that Boston’s vocational high school, Roxbury Community College, Franklin Institute, Northeastern, and Wentworth are all within walking distance of each other that could be connected to create a pipeline of training for green jobs clustered near Ruggles Station on the Orange Line. These institutions could work collectively toward that end, preparing students for jobs as engineers or property managers to meet the needs of the green economy.